- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

LOS ANGELES | A commuter train engineer who ran a stop signal was blamed Saturday for the nation’s deadliest rail disaster in 15 years, a wreck that killed 25 people and left such a mass of smoldering, twisted metal that it took nearly a day to recover all the bodies.

A preliminary investigation found that “it was a Metrolink engineer that failed to stop at a red signal, and that was the probable cause” of Friday’s collision with a freight train in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said. She said she thinks the engineer, whose name was not released, was killed.

“When two trains are in the same place at the same time, somebody’s made a terrible mistake,” said Miss Tyrrell, who was shaking and near tears as she spoke with reporters.

Authorities later announced that the effort to recover bodies from the Metrolink train’s crushed front car had ended, with the death toll at 24. It rose to 25 when USC Medical Center spokeswoman Adelaide DeLaCerda said a 50-year-old man transported to the hospital from the wreck died Saturday. She would not release his name.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described efforts to get through the wreckage as “like peeling an onion.”

Miss Tyrrell said the engineer worked for a subcontractor, Veolia, used by Metrolink since 1998, but had driven Metrolink trains since 1996.

The death toll made it the deadliest U.S. passenger rail accident since a September 1993 Amtrak derailment near Mobile, Ala.

A total of 135 people were injured, with 81 transported to hospitals in serious or critical condition.

There was no overall condition update available Saturday, but a telephone survey of five hospitals found nine of 34 patients still critical. Many were described as having crush injuries.

Police set up what they called a unification center at a local high school to try to connect worried people with information about friends or relatives who they thought were aboard the train.

Families of eight of the dead had been notified, and two women who were pronounced dead at hospitals were unidentified, coroner’s Assistant Chief Ed Winter said.

Firefighters were being rotated in and out of the scene to prevent emotional exhaustion, fire Capt. Armando Hogan said.

“There are some things we are trained for. There are some things, I don’t care what kind of training you have, you don’t always prepare for,” Capt. Hogan said. “This situation, particularly early on, with people inside the train, with the injuries, and with people moaning and crying and screaming, it was a traumatic experience.”

Metrolink announced its determination of the accident’s probable cause before investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), leaders of the probe, made any public statements about the crash.

“Even if the train is on the main track, it must go through a series of signals, and each one of the signals must be obeyed,” Miss Tyrrell told reporters. “What we believe happened, barring any new information from the NTSB, is … that our engineer failed to stop, … and that was the cause of the accident.

“We don’t know how the error happened,” she continued.

She said she didn’t know if the engineer had any previous problems operating trains or disciplinary issues.

The Metrolink train, heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County, was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and one conductor when it collided with the Union Pacific freight train, with a crew of three, about 4:30 p.m. Friday.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track in Chatsworth at the west end of the San Fernando Valley.

Until Friday, the deadliest disaster in Metrolink’s history occurred on Jan. 26, 2005, in suburban Glendale, when a man parked a gasoline-soaked SUV on railroad tracks. A Metrolink train struck the SUV and derailed, striking another Metrolink train traveling the other way, killing 11 people and injuring about 180 others.

Juan Alvarez was convicted this year of murder for causing the crash.

That was the deadliest U.S. rail tragedy since March 15, 1999, when an Amtrak train hit a truck and derailed near Bourbonnais, Ill., killing 11 people and injuring more than 100.

The Sunset Limited was involved in the deadliest accident in Amtrak’s 28-year history. On Sept. 22, 1993, 42 passengers and five crew members died when the train plunged off a trestle into a bayou near Mobile, Ala. The trestle had been damaged minutes earlier by a towboat.

  • AP writers Thomas Watkins, Raquel Maria Dillon, Greg Risling, Denise Petski, Josh Dickey, James Beltran, John Rogers and Michael R. Blood contributed to this report.
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